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A Fluid Life: Dana Oltman Goes With the Flow

August 3, 2018 1 comment

A Fluid Life

Dana Oltman Goes With the Flow

Originally published in November-December 2017 issue of Omaha Encounter magazine

Story by Leo Adam Biga

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

 

 

 

 

Fluid.

That’s how digital graphic designer and fine art painter Dana Oltman describes her aesthetic.

As art director for Identity Marketing Group (she was previously at Rebel Interactive) she fulfills client project wishes. She says her branding design work consistently features “minimal, simple, clean” looks that, well, flow.

“Fluid is what I love,” she says. “Fluid is where I’m at now.”

Her abstract expressionistic fine art, especially her poured art work, is all about the swirls and natural organic fades of liquid flows.

“Most of the paints I use are acrylics,” she says. “which have as their base water, and so they’re very fluid.”

She invariably listens to music when painting in order to activate or induce that state of flow.

“What I do is based on whatever mood I’m in,” she says. “While design is very rigid—I like to have a plan and justify everything I do—painting is exactly the opposite. I like to work with the medium, just pick a paint, pick some colors, and basically put it on a surface and see what it does. It’s very much working with my medium to get random results, trying to affect it minimally as I go, letting gravity and fluid dynamics do the rest. It’s all very in the moment.”

If she does manipulate the image, she says, it’s for texture, and in those cases she may apply etching materials, resin, linoleum carvers, and even a culinary blow torch.

The images she creates on masonry board or wood panels and, occasionally, on canvas are often expressions of things found in nature–everything from nebulas in outer space to severe storm skies.

Her favorite skies appear after a storm at sunset. “The clouds are stacking up to the east after they’ve already moved through and the sun is shining from the west and you have orange, yellow, purple, red—which is my favorite color palette,” she says.

Her natural hair color is red, and she often sports highlights in different shades from her favorite palette.

In August, she drove to Beatrice, Nebraska, to catch the total solar eclipse, and she knows it’s only a matter of time before it shows up in one of her paintings.

Music is another source of inspiration for Oltman, 26, who loves going to local live shows and festivals.

Occasionally, her work is featured at local concerts and entertainment events. She did a live painting of a musician at an Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards showcase.

She’s also taken on art projects for local bands, including an album cover for The Big Deep.

Some of her paintings can be seen at Curb Appeal Salon & Spa in the Old Market. A broad sampling of her work is available on her website, danaoltman.com.

Additionally, she draws and makes photographs, which she shares on her Instagram page.

Other influences and inspirations range from high fashion to poetry. She did a multi-week study abroad in Japan learning that country’s visual culture. The Japan immersion naturally showed up in her work, and she intends returning one day.

She’s also a Francophile who’s visited Quebec, Canada, and France. She expects taking ever deeper dives into French culture and returning to France—the home base for her favorite art movement: Impressionism.

Oltman grew up in Bennington, Nebraska, and graduated with a fine arts degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She draws a clear distinction between graphic design and art activities. She loves both, but one’s her job and the other’s purely for pleasure. She likes the balance of producing on a schedule as part of an office team and creating art alone when she feels like it.

“Since I don’t have art hooked to a vocation, it’s in my court totally. I don’t have to rely on anyone,” she says. “If I don’t want to make stuff, I don’t make stuff. If I do, I do. It’s just totally free.”

On the design side, she’s finding her most satisfaction working on websites.

“It”s such an advancing field,” she says. “Websites are so versatile, and you can do so many things. And it’s just so nuanced. It’s a really pretty time for web design.”

Motion graphics and animation are two new areas she’s learning fast. Coding is another.

“I enjoy learning new things,” she says.
“I’m a learner.”

Oltman enjoys the meet-ups that the local American Institute of Graphic Arts chapter puts on, including BarCamp.

She also stays connected to the design community via social media.

As a self-identified millennial, she admits, “I definitely fit the label in respect to being super connected online, being liberal, wanting a meaningful career that isn’t too constricting and gives me creative output, focusing on experience over material things in life, etc.”

A couple years ago when legalizing same-sex marriage was struck down in Nebraska, Oltman made a graphic of the Husker “N” with the Human Rights Campaign logo imposed in it. “I’m for causes that focus on equal human rights,”
she says.

At UNL she was one of several art students who created a mural portrait of George Flippin, the first African-American athlete of note at the university. The mural adorns the campus multicultural center.

When not doing pro bono work for things she believes in, she donates to the American Civil Liberties Union and to disaster relief funds.

In whatever she does, she follows her passion. Her personal credo-tagline says it all:

“Doin’ me a life.”

This article appears in the November/December 2017 issue of Encounter.

Creative to the core: John Hargiss and his handmade world

June 30, 2016 3 comments

John Hargiss comes from a long line of Southern Missouri craftsmen who would never have thought to call themselves creatives, but that’s precisely what they were for the things they made with their hands and for the music they played with those same rough-hewn mitts. The owner of Hargiss Stringed Instruments is a chip off the old block who handmakes custom guitars, violins and mandolins with Old World care and craftsmanship. With those same hands, he makes and does a lot of other things, too, including repairing instruments. He took things to a whole new level recently by restoring an early 20th century vaudeville turned movie theater he discovered laying frozen in time in the complex of adjoining buildings he owns in North Omaha, one of which houses his business. The meticulously restored theater is now hosting live theater, music and assorted other events. Hargiss feels a deep connection to the people and the life rhythms from whence he came. He has found a home for himself and his work in North Omaha. This is my new Omaha Encounter Magazine profile about John and his creative life.His passion for making community in that neighborhood he moved lock, stock and barrel to from Benson is one of the angles I took in an earlier profile I wrote about Hargiss, for The Reader. Link to that earlier story at–

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/12/26/entrepreneur-and-craftsman-john-hargiss-invests-in-north-omaha-stringed-instrument-maker-envisons-ambitious-plans-for-his-new-hargissville-digs/

 

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Creative to the core: John Hargiss and his handmade world

©by Leo Adam Biga

©Photos by Bill Sitzmann

Appearing in the July-Auguat 2016 issue of Omaha Encounter Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/category/publications/the-encounter/)

Master craftsman and stringed instrument maker John Hargiss learned the luthier skills he plies at his North Omaha shop from his late father Verl. In the hardscrabble DIY culture of their Southern Missouri hill and river bottom roots, people made things by hand.

“I think the lower on the food chain you are, the more creative you become. I think you have to,” Hargiss says.

He observed his late father fashion tables and ax handles with ancestral tools and convert station wagons into El Camino’s with nothing more than a lawnmower blade and glue pot. Father and son once forged a guitar from a tree they felled, cut and shaped together. The son’s hands are sure and nimble enough to earn him a tidy living at his own Hargiss Stringed Instruments at 4002 Hamilton Street. His shop’s filled with precision tools (jigs, clamps_, many of vintage variety.

Some specialized tools are similar to what dentists use. “I do almost the same thing – polish, grind, fill, recreate, redesign, restructure.”

Assorted wood, metal and found objects are destined for repurposing.

“I have an incredible way of looking at something and going, ‘I can use that.’ Everything you see will be sold or used one way or the other.”

In addition to instrument-making, he’s a silversmith, leather-maker and welder.A travel guitar he designed, the Minstrel, has sold to renowned artists, yet he still views himself an apprentice indebted to his father.

“He just made all kinds of things and taught me how to use and sharpen tools. Being around that most of my life it wasn’t very difficult for me to be like, ‘Oh, that’s how that works,’ For some reason my father and I had a connection. I couldn’t get enough of that old man. He was a mill worker, a mechanic, a woodsman. When he wasn’t doing that he was creating things. He was a craftsman. Everything I know how to create probably came from him. Everything I watched him do, I thought, ‘My hands were designed to do exactly what he’s doing.’ On his tombstone I had put, ‘A man who lived life through his hands.'”

Hargiss also absorbed rich musical influences.

“You were constantly around what we don’t see in the Midwest – banjo players, violin players, ukulele players, dulcimer players. There are a lot of musicians in that part of the world down there. Bluegrass. Rockabilly. Folkabilly, That would be our entertainment in the evenings – music, family, friends. Neighbors would show up with instruments and start playing. Growing up, that was our recreation.”

He feels a deep kinship to that music.

.”The roots of country music and the blues come out of being suppressed and poor,” he says. “All those incredible sad songs come from the bottom of the barrel.”

His father had a hand in his musical development

“My daddy was a good musician and he taught me to play music when I was about 9. By 11 I was already playing in little country and bluegrass bands. I can play a mandolin, a guitar, a banjo, a ukulele, but I’m pretty much a guitar player. And I sing and write music.”

Hargiss once made his livelihood performing. “I like playing music so much. It’s dangerous business because it will completely overpower you. I knew I needed to make a living, raise my children and have a life. so playing music became my hobby. I worked corporate jobs, but I kept being pulled back. It didn’t matter how hard I tried. I’d no more get the tie and suit off then I’d be out in the garage making something else. The day I quit that job I went to my boss and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore, my heart’s not in it. I’m going to start building things.”

It turned into his business.

Hargiss directly traces what he does to his father.

“I watched him repair a guitar he bought me at a yard sale. The strings were probably three inches off the finger board. I remember my daddy taking a cup of hot coffee and pouring it in the joint of that neck and him wobbling that neck off, and the next I knew he’d restrung that guitar. I think that’s when I knew that’s what I’m going to do.”

The memory of them making a guitar is still clear.

“The first guitar I built me and my daddy cut a walnut tree, chopped it up and we carved us a dreadnaught – a traditional Martin-style guitar. I gave that to him and he played that up to the day he died.”

 

Hargiss Encounter III

 

Aesthetics hold great appeal for Hargiss.

“I’m fascinated by architectural design in what I create and in what I make. I study it.”

He called on every ounce of his heritage to lovingly restore a vaudeville house turned movie theater he didn’t know came with the attached North O buildings he purchased five years ago. The theater lay dormant and unseen 65 years, like a time capsule, obscured by walls and ceilings added by property owners, before he and his girlfriend, Mary Thorsteinson, rediscovered it largely intact. The pair, who share an apartment behind the auditorium, did the restoration themselves.

The original Winn Theatre opened in 1905 as a live stage venue, became a movie theater and remained one (operating as the Hamilton and later the 40th Street Theatre), until closing in 1951. Preservation is nothing new to Hargiss, who reclaimed historic buildings in Benson, where his business was previously located. At the Hamilton site he was delighted to find the theater but knew it meant major work.

“I’ve always had this passion for old things. When we found the theater I remember saying, This is going to be a big one.”

Motivating the by-hand, labor-of-love project was the space’s “potential to be anything you want it to be.” He’s reopened the 40th Street Theatre as a live performance spot.

Hargiss is perpetually busy between instrument repairs and builds – he has a new commission to make a harp guitar – and keeping up his properties. Someone’s always coming in wanting to know how to do something and he’s eager to pay forward what was passed on to him.

The thought of working for someone else is unthinkable.

“I get one hundred percent control of my creativity. I’m not stuck, I’m not governed by, Well, you can’t do it this way. Of course I can because the sound this is going to produce is mine. When you get to control it, then you’re the CEO, the boss, the luthier, the repairman, the refinisher, the construction, the engineer, the architect. You’re all of these things at one time.”

Besides, he can’t help making things. “There’s a drive down in me someplace. Whatever I’m working on, I first of all have to see myself doing it. Then I go through this whole crazy second-guessing. And then the next thing I know it’s been created. Days later I’ll see it and go, ‘When did I do that?’ because it takes over me and it completely consumes every thought I have. I just let everything else go.”

Creating is so tied to his identity, he says, “It’s not that I can’t find peace or can’t be content” without it, “but by lands I like it.”

Visit http://www.hargissstrings.com.

Welcome to Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories @ leoadambiga.com


 

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Welcome to Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories @ leoadambiga.com, where–

I write stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions

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Omaha’s Old Market: History, stories, places, personalities, characters

June 19, 2016 4 comments

Omaha’s Old Market: History, stories, places, personalities, characters

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

The Old Market represents different things to different people but it is undeniably one of the few go-to destinations Omaha has to offer. It is a concentrated mish-mash of local culture, though still predominantly a white-bread, precious experience. It could use a healthy dose of diversity and grit, which is to say it could use some broader community representation that brings in some fresh entrepreneurial and cultural experiences and perspectives. But however you feel about it or view it, the Old Market holds some of the richest history in this city and it has been home to a fascinating mix of places, personalities and characters. Here is a compilation of some of my Old Market stories featuring some of that history and some of those venues and figures.

One of the biggest champions of Omaha’s Old Market and the history of the place has died.  George Eisenberg devoted much of his life to the historic warehouse district.  As boys and young men he and his brother Hymie worked alongside their father, Benjamin, manning a fruit and vegetable stand when the area was home to the Omaha Wholesale Produce Market.  Later, the brothers revolutionized the family business to become niche suppliers of potatoes and onions to major food processors, operating out of offices in the commercial center.  When the wholesale district declined and largely disbanded altogether the area was transformed into an arts-culture haven and George, who never left and owned substantial property there, became a landlord and an active Old Market Association member.  In his later years he was advocate and amateur historian for the Old Market and proudly led an effort to get decorative street lamps installed and other improvements made. He contributed some anecdotes to a section I wrote on the history of the Old Market for a recent book, Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores published by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society.  An excerpt with that section can be found on this blog.  George was one of the last of the go-to sources who personally worked in the Omaha City Market.  He enjoyed reliving that history and as he saw it educating the public about a way of commerce and life that is largely no more.  His enthusiasm for the subject will be missed.  I did the following short profile of George about five years ago for Omaha Magazine and now as fate would have it I will soon be writing an in-memoriam piece about him for the same publication.  That rememberance will join one I wrote about another Old Market legend who died recently, Joe Vitale.  You can find the Vitale story on this blog.

George Eisenberg’s Love for Omaha‘s Old Market Never Grows Old

@by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

Old Market icon George Eisenberg has more than the usual attachment to the historic warehouse district that once was the area’s nexus for produce dealers, buyers and transporters. His late father Benjamin was a peddler in what used to be called the City Market. As boys Eisenberg and his brother Hymie worked alongside their dad in the leased open air sidewalk stalls whose overhead metal canopies still adorn many of the 19th century-era buildings preserved there. Once home to wholesellers and outfitters, the brick structures now house the Old Market’s mix of condos, restaurants, shops, artist studios and galleries.

After serving in the U.S. Army in World War II Eisenberg rejoined his father, delivering items by truck, and by the early ‘60s he’d modernized and expanded the enterprise and bought out papa. In 1972 his brother Hymie partnered with him. Innovations gave the company such a competitive advantage that the brothers were dubbed “the potato and onion kings of the United States” supplying millions of pounds a week to commercial customers across America and into Canada. They made their fortune and retired in 1983. Hymie died in ‘91.

The 83-year-old is proud to be a peddler’s son. He’s also proud of his continuing relationship with the district. He’s a property owner and an active volunteer with the Old Market Business Association and Downtown Omaha Inc.. Eisenberg secured the authentic lamp posts that lend such a distinctive design element to the 10th Street Bridge. He played a key role, too, in making the 11th and Jackson Street parking garage a reality. Downtown Omaha Inc. honored him with its 2007 Economic Development Award.

He’s a model landlord for the tasteful restoration he’s done and solid tenants he’s brought to his 414-418 South 10th Street buildings, properties originally owned by his father for wholesale storage, distribution and offices.

Generous with advice, he’s given counsel to many Old Market entrepreneurs, including Nouvelle Eve/Jackson Artworks owner Kat Moser.

As much as he’s involved in the “new” Old Market’s destination place identity and as much as he supports the emerging SoMa and NoDo developments, he enjoys looking back to the Market’s past. Back when ethnic blue collar produce vendors pitched their wares in the ancient tradition of the open air market. When pockets took the place of cash registers and vendors took a break from 14-hour days by reclining on bales of hay or overturned crates. It was a boisterous, press-the-flesh carnival of men, women and children using sing-song chants to hawk fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers and plants. Shoppers hailed from all walks of life.

A chorus of Eisenberg shouting, “Get your watermelon — red, ripe and sweet watermelon,” blended with the pitch, dicker and banter of hundreds of merchants-customers. Accents were common among the mostly Jewish, Italian and Syrian vendors. “English was the primary language spoken,” he said, but many foreign-born merchants, like his Russian immigrant father, “conversed among themselves in their native tongues. Every ethnic group was represented in one way or another.”

All those peddlers packed in a small space shouting to get customers’ attention created quite a racket. “Our advertisement was our voice,” he said. “It was noisy, yeah.” But that noise was sweet “music.”” Besides, he said, the ruckus and color “were part of the charm of the market.”

Hawking’s not for wallflowers. “If you’re shy you don’t belong in marketing,” he said. Things only quieted down, he said, after a warning from the market master, whose job was to collect monthly fees from vendors and mediate disputes among them. Once gone, the din began again. It was a special time and place.

“It was fun,” Eisenberg said. “There was excitement.”

He said his father steeped him in the market’s history. Ben Eisenberg got into the trade through his father-in-law Solomon Silverman, whose daughter Elsie became Ben’s wife and George and Hymie’s mother. Just as Silverman began as a door-to-door peddler with a horse and wagon, Ben followed suit. Just as Solomon leased stalls in the market, so did Ben. In the early 1900s, Eisenberg learned, a bidding process divvied up the stalls. Some locations were better than others. Getting outbid caused sore feelings and fistfights broke out. The bidding system was disbanded, he said, and exisiting stalls grandfathered in. Ben had four choice spots at the northeast corner of 11th and Jackson as well as his own wholesale house.

In an era before “Thanks for shopping…come again,” he said many vendors lacked good customer relation skills. His dad, though, had a gift with people.

“My dad was a really good salesman and he separated himself from everybody else because he was very polite, businesslike, and his word was his bond. If my dad said, ‘You got it,’ you didn’t need a contract — that’s it.” Eisenberg said.

He said his father “bought and sold in big quantities,” a practice Eisenberg continued. Many of Ben’s grocery-supermarket customers were former peddlers like himself. “My dad knew all the peddlers, so when he got in the wholesale business all the peddlers came to do business with dad. They knew he was going to give them the right price and not insult them.”

Like his father before him, Eisenberg served as vice president of the Omaha Wholesale Fruit Dealers Association, a predecessor of the Old Market Business Association. In some ways he’s still hawking, still looking after the best interests of his beloved Old Market. “I love business. I love marketing. I welcome anybody who wants to hang up their shingle and start their business.” He embraces the growing community there. “That’s the district’s salvation — it’s a neighborhood now.”

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Oh, for the days when there was almost literally a grocery store on every corner and a movie theater in every neighborhood.  I only know those days through articles, books, movies, photographs, and reminiscences and I am sure the reality did not match my romanticism about them.  As fate would have it, the Mom and Pop grocery phenomenon I only got a glimmer of during my childhood became the subject of an assignment I was offered and gladly accepted: as co-editor and lead writer for a NebraskaJewish Historical Society book project that commemmorates and documents the Mom and Pop Jewish grocery stores that operated in and around the Omaha metropolitan area from approximately the beginning of the 20th century through the 1960s-1970s.  But it was Ben Nachman, along with Renee Ratner-Corcoran, who I worked with on the project, that truly realized the book .  Ben’s vision and energy got it started and Renee’s commitment and persistence saw it through.  I just helped pick up the pieces once Ben passed away a year or so into the project.  Ultimately, the book belongs to all the families and individuals who contributed anecdotes, stories, essays, photos, and ads about their grocery stores.

Immediately below is Jewish Press story about the project, followed by an excerpt from the book.

The book is dedicated to the man who inaugurated the project, the late Ben Nachman, who was responsible for starting what is now my long association with both the Jewish Press and the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society.  Ben led me to many Holocaust survivor and rescuer stories I ended up writing, many of which can be found on this blog.  My stories about Ben and his work as an amatuer but highy dedicated historian can also be found here.  I also collaborated with Ben and Renee, as the writer to their producder-roles, on a documentary film about the Brandeis Department Store empire of Nebraska.  A very long two-part story I did for the Jewish Press on the Brandeis family and their empire served as the basis for the script I wrote.  You can find that story on this blog.

Historical Society publishes grocery store history

by Rita Shelley

11.11.11 issue, Jewish Press

Freshly arrived from Europe a century ago, thousands of men and women found work in South Omaha’s packinghouse and stockyards.

South 24th Street grocer Witte Fried, also a first generation American and a widow with children from ages 2 to 7, knew something of her neighbors’ struggles to survive and prosper. She also knew they needed to eat. According to her descendants, Fried took care to mark prices on the merchandise in her store in several languages. She wanted her customers, regardless of their German, Irish, Italian, Russian, Polish, Greek, Czech or other origins, to have an easier transition into their new world.

Fried’s story is one of many featured in Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores. Scheduled to be published in November by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society (NJHS), the book includes recollections of Jewish grocers and members of the families who operated stores throughout Omaha, Lincoln, Council Bluffs and surrounding areas from the early 1900s to the present.

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“A history of Jewish owned stores is also a history of the grocery business,” Renee Ratner-Corcoran, NJHS executive director, said. “Beginning with peddlers who traveled from farm to farm to trade their wares for farm produce to sell in the cities, through one-room Mom and Pop stores with adjoining living quarters, to the first large self-service grocery stores, to today’s discount stores that sell housewares and groceries under the same roof, the Jewish community played a vital role in the grocery industry.The book was a dream of Dr. Ben Nachman, an NJHS volunteer whose father owned a small store on North 27th Street. Dr. Nachman died in 2010; publication of the book is dedicated to his memory.

Children of early Jewish grocers who were interviewed for the book or submitted recollections recall the hustle and bustle of buying produce from open air stalls downtown (today’s Old Market) as early as 4 a.m. to stay ahead of the competition. Before there were automobiles, grocers’ children were responsible for the care of the horses that pulled delivery buggies. Mixing the flour and water paste to use for painting prices of the week’s specials on the front window was also the responsibility of children. So were dividing 100-pound sacks of potatoes into five- and 10-pound packages, grinding and bagging coffee, and feeding the chickens. (A kerosene barrel and a chicken coop were located side-by-side in at least one family’s store.).

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The book’s publication was underwritten by the Herbert Goldsten Trust, the Special Donor Advised Fund of the Jewish Federation of Omaha Foundation, the Milton S. & Corinne N. Livingston Foundation, Inc., the Murray H. and Sharee C. Newman Supporting Foundation, Doris and Bill Alloy, Sheila and John Anderson, Edith Toby Fellman, Doris Raduziner Marks, In honor of Larry Roffman’s 80th Birthday, and Stanley and Norma Silverman.Increasing prosperity meant housewives had more money to spend. Innovations in transportation and refrigeration also brought changes to the grocery industry, and Jewish grocers were among the first to embrace those changes. More recently, Jewish Nebraskans “invented” some of the country’s first discount chains and wholesale distribution networks, as well as the data processing innovations that made them profitable.

For additional information, contact Renee Ratner-Corcoran by e-mail at rcorcoran@jewishomaha.org or by phone at 402.334.6442.

Excerpts from the book-

©by Leo Adam Biga

Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores                                                                                Omaha, Lincoln, Greater Nebraska and Southwest Iowa

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Jews have a proud history as entrepreneurs and merchants. When Jewish immigrants began coming to America in greater and greater numbers during the late 19th century and early 20th century, many gravitated to the food industry, some as peddlers and fresh produce market stall hawkers, others as wholesalers, and still others as grocers.

Most Jews who settled in Nebraska came from Russia and Poland, with smaller segments from Hungary, Germany, and other central and Eastern European nations. They were variously escaping pogroms, revolution, war, and poverty. The prospect of freedom and opportunity motivated Jews, just as it did other peoples, to flock here.

At a time when Jews were restricted from entering certain fields, the food business was relatively wide open and affordable to enter. There was a time when for a few hundred dollars one could put a down payment on a small store. That was still a considerable amount of money before 1960, but it was not out of reach of most working men who scrimped and put away a little every week. And that was a good thing too because obtaining capital to launch a store was difficult. Most banks would not lend credit to Jews and other minorities until after World War II.

The most likely route that Jews took to becoming grocers was first working as a peddler, selling feed, selling produce by horse and wagon or truck, or apprenticing in someone else’s store. Some came to the grocery business from other endeavors or industries. The goal was the same – to save enough to buy or open a store of their own. By whatever means Jews found to enter the grocery business, enough did that during the height of this self-made era, from roughly the 1920s through the 1950s, there may have been a hundred or more Jewish-owned and operated grocery stores in the metro area at any given time.

Jewish grocers almost always started out modestly, owning and operating small Mom and Pop neighborhood stores that catered to residents in the immediate area. By custom and convenience, most Jewish grocer families lived above or behind the store, although the more prosperous were able to buy or build their own free-standing home.

Since most customers in Nebraska and Iowa were non-Jewish, store inventories reflected that fact, thus featuring mostly mainstream food and nonfood items, with only limited Jewish items and even fewer kosher goods. The exception to that rule was during Passover and other Jewish high holidays, when traditional Jewish fare was highlighted.

Business could never be taken for granted. In lean times it could be a real struggle. Because the margin between making it and not making was often quite slim many Jewish grocers stayed open from early morning to early evening, seven days a week, even during the Sabbath, although some stores were closed a half-day on the weekend. Jewish stores that did close for the Sabbath were open on Sunday.

Jewish grocery stores almost always became multi-generation family affairs. The classic story was for a husband and wife to open a store and for their children to “grow up” in it. In some families there was a definite expectation for the children to follow and succeed their parents in the business. But there were as many variations on this story as families themselves. In some cases, the founder, almost always a male, was joined in the business by a brother or brothers or perhaps a brother in law. Therefore, a child born into a grocer family might have one or both parents and some combination of uncles, aunts, siblings, and cousins working there, too.

Of course, not every child followed his folks into the family business. Because most early Jewish grocers did not have much in the way of a formal education, the family business was viewed as a springboard for their children to complete an education, even to go onto college. It was a means by which the next generation could advance farther than their parents had, whether in the family grocery business or in a professional field far removed from stocking shelves and bagging groceries.

Some Jewish grocers went in and out of business in a short time, but many enjoyed long runs, extending over generations. Some proprietors stayed small, with never more than a single store, while others added more stores to form chains (the Tuchman brothers) and others (like the Bakers and the Newmans) graduated from Mom and Pop shops to supermarkets. Some owners made their success as grocers only to leave that segment of the food business behind to become wholesale suppliers and distributors (Floyd Kulkin), even food manufacturers (Louis Albert).

Whatever path Jewish grocers took, the core goal was the same, namely to provide for their families and to stake out a place of their own that offered continued prosperity. For a Jewish family, especially an immigrant Jewish family, owning a store meant self-sufficiency and independence. It was a means to an end in terms of assimilation and acceptance. It was a real, tangible sign that a family had arrived and made it. Most Jewish grocers didn’t get rich, but most managed to purchase their own homes and send their kids to college. It was a legitimate, honorable gateway to achieving the American Dream, and one well within reach of people of modest means.

For much of the last century Jewish grocery stores could be found all over the area, in rural as well as in urban locales, doing business where there were no other Jews and where there was a concentration of Jews. In Nebraska and Western Iowa there have historically been few Jewish enclaves, meaning that Jewish grocers depended upon Gentiles for the bulk of their business. Dealing with a diverse clientele was a necessity.

In some instances, Jewish grocers and their fellow Jewish business owners catered to distinct ethnic groups. For example, from the 1920s through the 1960s the North 24th Street business district in Omaha was the commercial hub for the area’s largely African-American community. During that period the preponderance of business owners along and around that strip were Jewish, including several grocers, some of whom lived in the neighborhood. These circumstances meant that Jews and blacks in Omaha were mutually dependent on each other in a manner that didn’t exist before and hasn’t existed since. When the last in a series of civil disturbances in the district did significant damage there, the last of the Jewish merchants moved out. Only a few Jewish owned grocery stores remained in what was the Near Northside.

Until mechanical refrigeration became standard, customers had to shop daily or at least every other day to buy fresh products to replenish their ice boxes and pantries. Having to shop so frequently at a small, family-run neighborhood store meant that customers and grocers developed closer, more personal relationships than they generally do today. Grocers not only knew their regular customers by name but knew their buying patterns so well that they could fill an order without even looking at a list.

Home delivery was a standard service offered by most grocers back in the day. Some stores were mainly cash and carry operations and others primarily charge and delivery endeavors. Taking grocery orders by phone was commonplace.

Most grocers extended credit to existing customers, even carrying them during rough times. It was simply the way business was conducted then. A person’s word was their bond.

Fridays were generally the busiest day in the grocery business because it’s when most laborers got paid and it’s when families stocked up for the big weekend meal most households prepared.

Jewish grocers were among the founders and directors of cooperatives, such as the United Associated Grocers Co-op or United AG and the Lincoln Grocers Association, that gave grocers increased buying power on the open market.

With only a few exceptions today, the intimate, family neighborhood stores are a thing of the past. As automobiles and highways changed the landscape to accommodate the burgeoning suburbs, newer, larger chain stores and supermarkets emerged whose buying and selling power the Mom and Pops could not compete with on anything like an even basis. Thus, the Mom and Pop stores, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, began fading away.

Because Jewish grocers were such familiar, even ubiquitous fixtures in the community, the majority population gave little thought to the fact that Omaha Jewish merchants like the Bakers (Baker’s Supermarkets) or the Newmans (Hinky Dinky), who began with Mom and Pop stores, led the transition to supermarket chains. For much of the metro’s history then, Jews controlled a large share of the grocery market, helping streamline and modernize the way in which grocers did business and consumers shopped.

It is true the one-to-one bond between grocer and consumer may have all but disappeared with the advent of the supermarket and discount store phenomenon. The days of grocers filling each customer order individually went by the wayside in the new age of self-service.

One thing that’s never changed is the fact that everybody has to eat and Jews have been at the forefront of fulfilling that basic human need for time immemorial. The Jewish grocer was an extension of the friendly neighborhood bubbe or zayde or mensch in making sure his or her customers always had enough to eat.

In Memoriam: Filmmaker Gail Levin followed her passion

May 7, 2016 5 comments

In August it will be three years since the death of my friend and frequent subject, documentary filmmaker Gail Levin, an Omaha native who made a great success for herself in Boston and New York City. Her films won awards and critical kudos. They often played on PBS. She was fascinated by a lot of things but she was particularly attracted to fellow creatives and artists, and thus some of her best known and most seen work explored the inner workings and demons of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Cab Calloway, and Jeff Bridges. Perhaps the film that got her the most attention was Making the Misfits,  an examination of that strange, wonderful, and star-struck amalgam of talent on that great American film The Misfits, whose cast included Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, and Thelma Ritter. John Huston directed a script written by Arthur Miller. The following piece is something I was commissioned to write about Gail upon her death by her brother and sister in law. They knew of my personal and professional association with her and I was much honored that they would think of me to attempt to do justice to her life and career. We sent this piece to select media, including The New York Times, and the obit writer from The Times did follow up with me to ask me several questions. Some of what I wrote also ended up in an Omaha World-Herald piece. When I think of Gail, I think of high energy and deep passion. She was another of the hundreds of Nebraskans who came out of here to do great things in film. Her brother David and I have become friends and we have tried, so far without success, to interest local organizations in supporting a tribute program to Gail and her work. She left behind an immense and important archival collection of correspondence, photographs, tapes, scripts, and notes related to completed and unfinished work. She interviewed and corresponded with dozens of great artists over a four decade period. We do hope the materials find a good home and that her work can be remembered via an exhibition and/or repertory series.

On my blog, http://www.leoadambiga.com, you can search for additional stories I wrote about Gail and her work.

 

Gail Levin

 

In Memoriam

Filmmaker Gail Levin followed her passion

 

If you’re a devotee of public television then chances are you saw the work of the late nonfiction filmmaker Gail Levin. The Omaha native and longtime New York City resident died July 31 in a NYC hospice care facility at age 67 after a long fight with breast cancer.

Outside Ken Burns and Errol Morris, documentary filmmakers are rarely household names. Levin herself was little known to the general public but her award-winning films were seen by millions on such PBS-carried series as American Masters and Great Performances.

Possessing an animated personality, intense curiosity and keen visual sense, Levin left an impression wherever she went and she leaves behind a body of work that will endure.

“Gail was an enormous creative force as a filmmaker and a creative thinker. I worked on many projects with her and she became a very good friend as well, and I’m very sad,” said American Masters creator and executive producer Susan Lacy. “Her films sort of had a poetic quality to them that is missing in many documentaries and she had a depth in the way she told stories. You could always tell a Gail film because she was so visual. She really understood the power of an image.

“Most documentary filmmakers work within a limited vocabulary, She did not want her vocabulary limited, and I really admired her.”

Levin made films about many subjects but came to be best known for her documentaries about cinema greats Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.

Marilyn Monroe: Still Life (2006) explored the complicity of the sex goddess and the photographers who most worked with her in creating images that remain potent pop culture symbols today. Her struggles with fame and her eventual premature death forever fixed her as an alluring, beguiling figure in the collective consciousness.

James Dean: Sense Memories (2005) examined the many layers of the brilliant actor who blazed a hot trail in New York and Hollywood with his quirky Method style and unconventional lifestyle. His tragic death in a car crash at age 24 forever cemented his status as a rebel symbol.

Both the Monroe and Dean films earned CINE Golden Eagle Awards and were featured in Montreal’s International festival of Films on Art.

Another of her well known works, Making the Misfits (2002), delved into the personal machinations that went on behind the scenes of the 1961 John Huston-directed feature film The Misfits and its cast of doomed icons Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift.

Two of her most recently telecast films were profiles of actor-musicians separated by distinct cultures and generations. In Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides she revealed the man behind the cool enigma of signature roles in such acclaimed post-modern films as The Big Lebowski. In Cab Calloway; Sketches she celebrated the multi-talented black entertainer’s impact on jazz and dance and his role in the Harlem Renaissance.

For the Calloway piece she incorporated animation by noted editorial cartoonist Steve Brodner. She previously collaborated with Brodner on the multi-platform political satire series The Naked Campaign during the 2008 presidential election.

She served as a series producer on Picturing America on Screen, an online, on-air National Endowment for the Humanities and PBS collaborative focus on how American art treasures illuminate American history and lore. She was also a producer/director of host introductions and other program content for the PBS ARTS Fall Festival.

Some of her favorite work came producing segments for the A&E cable network’s Revue series that variously featured conversations between artists or profiles of artists. She particularly enjoyed the programs that paired artists for free-wheeling, unscripted discussions.

“I did one after another with incredible people. Martin Scorsese and Stephen Frears. Tom Stoppard and Richard Dreyfuss. Francis Ford Coppola and John Singleton. Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin,” she said in an interview. “I just think this notion of giants talking to each other is a very interesting concept. I actually think they speak to each other far differently than they speak to anyone who interviews them, no matter who you are. It’s just fascinating.”

Other notables she profiled included Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and Bernardo Bertolucci.

Levin had two major film projects in-progress at the time of her death: a portrait of Hollywood photographer Sam Shaw; and the recreation of conversations between cinema giants Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut, whose critical analysis helped turn Hitch from popular suspense director into serious auteur.

The 1965 Omaha Central High School graduate left her hometown nearly a half century ago but often got back to visit family and friends.

She’s survived by her brother David Levin, sister-in-law Karen Levin and cousin Jerrold Neugarten. She earned an education degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and did graduate work at Wheelock College in Boston. Her first foray into filmmaking came when she enlisted children in a Boston Head Start program to participate in homemade photo-film projects borne of her curiosity about the era’s heady free cinema movement.

She returned to school, this time at Boston University, for a mixed educational and filmmaking doctorate.

Her path was similar to the one taken more than a decade earlier by fellow Omaha native and Central grad Joan Micklin Silver, who went East to work in theater and television before breaking into independent feature filmmaking. NYC-based-Micklin Silver still makes films today.

In interviews Levin traced her penchant for arts subjects to her growing up the only daughter of “an erudite” Nebraska Jewish family that owned a string of retail clothing stores and indulged a taste for cultural pursuits. She also spoke of having become a die-hard film buff as a teen upon seeing Italian director Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 at her neighborhood Dundee Theater in Omaha.

An internship on a Boston WBZ-TV kids show led to an associate producer’s job that turned into a senior producer slot. She then evolved into being an intrepid independent filmmaker who went wherever the stories that inspired her took her. She captured a trans-Atlantic rite-of-passage in the Emmy Award-winning The Tall Ship Lindo.  She revisited the scorching Nevada desert locations of The Misfits for Making the Misfits. She also documented candid, intimate dialogues with famous figures from the worlds of sport, art, entertainment and academia.

By the early 1980s Levin moved to New York to work as a TV producer-director and by the middle of the decade formed her own production company, Levson, whose name she later changed to Inscape. Her deep ties to Boston led her back there for some of her most prized projects.

Levin often pursued film projects that coalesced with her passions. For example, the lifelong sports fan jumped at the opportunity to do a film profile of Boston Celtics coaching legend Red Auerbach. Her love of arts and letters found perfect expression in her Harvard: A Video Portrait, which she made to commemorate the historic Ivy League school’s 350th anniversary.

Her admiration of photography and film saw her repeatedly make artists working in those mediums her subjects.

Whatever the story, Levin steeped herself in it.

“I make it my business to know what I’m supposed to know about these things,” she told an interviewer.

Finding a subject that engaged her and running with it was her joy.

“When I discover something, it does fuel me,” she once said. “I love finding the connections and chasing them down. It’s not just about having a good idea. It’s having somehow or other the planets line up exactly the right way and when that happens that’s just…You have to be passionate about this stuff for that to happen.”

“Gail Levin was one of the most exciting, caring, ALIVE people I’ve ever met,” posted National Public Radio host Robin Young on the in memoriam web page of WNET, the producer of American Masters. “Oh to be once more in her energy field when she was seized by a creative vision.”

It’s some consolation to those who knew Levin that she was doing exactly what she wanted to do.

“I’ve been so blessed,” Levin said in an interview. “I have had a career that I love…As hard as it is sometimes I don’t even care. Besides, I don’t know how to do or like anything else. I’ve had hugely impassioned projects and I’ve been able to see them from the moment that little light went on in my head to the final edit.”

Her colleagues mourn her death and the stark reality there won’t be a new Levin film to look forward to.

“The documentary community is kind of in a state of shock and we’re all devastated by her loss,” said Lacy.

Levin’s passion work lives on though through revival screenings and viewing platforms like Netflix.

A 1 p.m. Sunday graveside service will be held at Fisher Farm Cemetery, 8600 South 42nd St, in Bellevue, Neb.. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be sent to the Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center (c/o the University of Nebraska Foundation) or to Temple Israel synagogue or to a charity of choice.

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